October 18, 2007

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30 Days of Night (R)
Vampires lay waste to Barrow, Alaska, a town so far north it spends an entire month in the winter without a sunrise in 30 Days of Night, a wonderfully creepy horror movie adaptation of a graphic novel.

Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) is the sheriff of Barrow and well-liked by his constituents. He’s also well-sympathized with — his wife Stella (Melissa George) has recently left him and the town seems to be pulling for these two kids to work it out.

As circumstances turn out, they might have some time to work on their problems. Stella’s up in Barrow for her job as the state fire marshal. After a car accident makes her late for the airport, she misses the last fight out of town — the last flight for a month. Barrow, deep inside the Arctic Circle and reachable only by air (there are no roads to the town), spends one month each winter in total darkness. The town is basically isolated except for its sled dogs, its Internet access and its telephones.

But, hey, the Internet is down. And hey, all the cell phones in town are found out in a field melted into a plastic lump. And, oh no, sled dogs, look out for the … ew, never mind.

As the townspeople slowly discover all the ways in which they can’t reach the outside, a stranger (Ben Foster) appears, all black teeth and serial killer mannerisms. When a near-bar-fight leads Eben to bring him to jail, the stranger starts taunting Eben, Stella and a few other police department hangers-on that “they’re coming” and that nobody can hide. Who’s coming?, a character asks. It’s about then that the lights flip off and the screaming starts.

Eventually, we get a good look at the who — the vampire leader Marlow (Danny Huston) and a crew that would make the characters of Eastern Promises look like hippie peaceniks. Looking almost like black and white drawings of vampires (cinematography in this movie is very well done), this group plows through town, killing everyone they can catch. And it’s no dainty two holes in the neck — these vampires rip gaping wounds in flesh and then feed like wild animals. Once all the easy human prey is gone, they devise more subtle ways of finding the residents who’ve managed to hide themselves.

Cannibalistic horror movie monsters are difficult. Either they’re brainless lurching animals, like most zombies, or they’re tortured emo vampires who mope around goth surroundings like deposed European royalty. Both can be unintentionally funny and water down any real terror a movie might have been able to gin up. 30 Days of Night does a good job of giving us vampires who embody the best traits of horror movie monsters: they’re verbal (they speak some kind of language which, and maybe I’m just projecting based on the film’s location, sounds like a mix of a Native American dialect and Russian) and they even understand the English-speaking residents (one woman asks God to help her; Huston’s Marlow looks up at the sky and then says “God? No God.”). But they don’t care in any way about their prey. They don’t devise elaborate torture scenarios. They don’t want to converse about good and evil. They bite, they feed, they move on. They are unreason-with-able animals but they have a human’s intelligence. They know where to look for you, they can understand the meaning of your cries for help.

30 Days of Night doesn’t take that long to get from “let’s all get ready for the sun to go down” to “aaaaaagh, vampires!” But it does a good job of building up the fear in that period of time. Foster’s character exists almost totally to amp up the horror. “That cold, it’s not the weather, it’s death approaching” — when Foster says this, it’s effective, it creeped me out. His whole purpose is this kind of foreshadowing — if foreshadowing is still what you can call it when one character is explicitly telling the other characters what is about to happen.

The actual fang-intensive portion of the movie impressively doesn’t defuse this tension. The longer the vampires are around, the scarier the movie gets. The surviving townsfolk are scared and hungry and weak and know they are more likely to make mistakes. The fewer the survivors, the greater the sense of isolation. Slowly they realize that not only might they all die but their deaths might never be understood for what they were — a realization that is a weird kind of horror of its own.

But how are Josh Hartnett and Melissa George, the two actors on which the human part of the story rests? The brilliance of 30 Days of Night is that it doesn’t matter how they are. They are good enough — appropriately terrified, relatively capable, cognizant of the characters’ back-stories. The actors (even Huston, who has turned in some twitchy performances over the years) don’t get in the way of the story, they melt cleanly into it. You get totally wrapped up in the chill-inducing quality of it all and forget that Hartnett’s résumé consists of a lot of pretty boy, lame action or wimpy dramatic roles.

In a week or so, Saw IV will hit the theaters and while it will likely gross me out (eyes-swishing, flesh-burning, acid — that series loves all that stuff), it probably won’t creep me out. 30 Days of Night, with its mix of conscienceless killers and isolating winter, offers far more chills than that entire series’ worth of cold-blooded gore. B+

Rated R for strong horror violence and language. Directed by David Slade and written by Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson (from a comic by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith), 30 Days of Night is an hour and 48 minutes long and will open on Friday, Oct. 19. It is distributed by Sony Pictures.